Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Sadie Antonio, Paul Sparks, Stuart Greer, Bonnie Sturdivant, John Ward Jr., Kristy Barrington, Johnny Cheek, Kenneth Hill and Michael Abbott, Jr.
Jeff Nichols is an American filmmaker to watch out for after giving us "Take Shelter" as well as this beautifully heartfelt coming-of-age drama, Mud. As with his previous film, there is a deep sense of the place and its essence to be found here. Nichols has a strong grasp and focus on the characters that populate his films, the places they come from and the various issues they face in the wake of their adulthood or adolescence. Mud was shown in competition at 2012 Cannes Film Festival where it received very favorable response but wasn't released until the following year. It got much of the audience attention in part for the actors and in some instances, Nichols himself. Mud won the Grand Prix from the Belgian Film Critics Association and won many awards including Independent Spirit and a slew of nominations for Matthew McConaughey specially. McConaughey has been enjoying much of the critical attention since 2012 for his strong choices of roles and delivering standout performances throughout. "Mud" in the film is a man played by McConaughey who lives secretly on one of the islands in the Arkansas River. The two young boys, Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland), finds his boat stuck high in a tree. Mud is somebody they don't know anything about, he has a strange personality and obviously seems to be running away from something horrible he did in the past. Mud promises the boys his boat if they help him out with food and other things while he stays on the island. It is revealed by Mud himself that he is waiting for his old girlfriend, Juniper (Witherspoon). Later, Ellis also finds out that Mud is a wanted man by the police and upon confronting him, he explains them everything. Mud killed the man who not only impregnated Juniper but also caused an incident as a result of which she lost her child. The boys now knowing more about him and believing in his struggle offers to help him in exchange of his pistol.
Much like the river, islands or an entire community of the houseboat residence that the film portrays as a mythic backdrop, the character of Mud stands tall like an intriguing figure for the young boys. Of those, Ellis is the focus of this film. Like any other boy of his age, he is having the girl problems. There is an older high-school girl Ellis has a crush on, believing it to be love or something profound like that. Even for a boy of his age, Ellis comes across as more mature as he tackles the usual problems. But he is still a kid with so much to learn and experience. It is one of those formative years where kids begin to understand more about the world they live in and the people around them. Ellis' parents don't have a great relationship with one another and are heading for a divorce. There is nothing more damaging to a child's psychology then broken lives or broken relationships. This lack of bonding and closeness in his very home seems to have further ignited the passion within Ellis to not only get the love of his life but also bring Juniper back into Mud's life. To re-unite these lovers who were torn apart by circumstances and mend what was broken. He is about to lose not only his family but as a result, his houseboat. In this part of America, keeping your family together isn't just an obligation to fulfill but a practical necessity. Such a drastic change in any person's life is very hard to tackle and experience. You grow up with your parents looking after you and then to have everything fall apart is damaging in more than one way. In "Take Shelter", the character played by Michael Shannon (also playing a small role in Mud) is a mentally disturbed head of the house. He is not only tackling the problems that were transferred to him by his parents but facing even bigger issues with his own family. He desperately tries everything to keep his family together and protecting them from the literal or metaphorical danger that so openly (to him at least), seems to loom over their lives. During the process, he does everything including isolating his wife and friends. Just like that character, Ellis feels the burden on his small shoulders here. He has not only his family or himself to care about but another person, a fugitive. Call it a compulsion, peer pressure or adolescence.
Nichols and his cinematographer beautifully captures the resonating and serene atmosphere of the Mississippi River, the swamps and several dispersed islands and its inhabitants. Old traditions meet the new modern ones. They are on the brink of being lost. The situation isn't any different from how a river meets an entire sea, bringing everything with itself and leaving it right there. There are many stories and legends to be found in such places where the modern technological developments haven't fully showed their rise. Southern people and their traditions, their outlook on surviving the cruel world and for each and everyone to play an integral part in the family and as a community. Keeping your culture and old traditions alive in modern world is a difficult task. Nichols who has also written the film, did an outstanding job not only highlighting some of the important aspects of these characters but also layering and rooting them down such delicately. Mud is running away from his past troubles but towards his lost love. His life in the future might not turn out exactly the way he is hoping it to be but he is still trying. The same is with the boys, or any one of us walking against the current. The coming-of-age aspect of the film is the strongest written and conceived. To put two earnest and wilful young boys in the middle of adult conflicts and the grown up world, Nichols is able to give a richly nuanced undercurrent to the lives of his characters. The story of this film reminds one of fairy tales, children books, Mark Twain. What is also great about this film is how it never falls into the usual flawed moments. The film never turns overtly melodramatic nor emotionally weary. It keeps the emotions alive throughout, the intensity radiates and shines during each and every moment. When Ellis realizes that there is nothing he can do and he feels betrayed as well as the final act. The bond that is formed between the kids and Mud, there is so much warmth at the heart of these moments. All of these conflicts as well as Mud's past comes crashing down with a full force in the final suspenseful moments.
Matthew McConaughey in one of his career best performances packs both angst and heartening emotions in his portrayal of the titular character. He is very much absorbed within his role with every dialogue that he utters or every look that he gives. The character isn't your archetypal bad guy or love-sick puppy but somewhere between the two. McConaughey realizes the fine line. At first, the character appears ambiguous and not to be trusted. But slowly as he opens up himself, despite the crime that he committed, there is more deepened sense of humanity that is to be found. An amazing performance. Tye Sheridan on the other hand gives what is bound to be one of his most memorable turns. Sheridan is such a joy to watch, a performance that immediately establishes itself as some of the best for an actor of such age. His character is a sweet and sensitive kid slowly pushed towards the harsher realities of life. His gripping portrayal is confident and rendering. I could not really forget some of the moments in the film involving Sheridan for days after watching the film, such an effective portrayal. Reese Witherspoon also gives a fine performance in some of the few moments she appears in. Other actors including Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Jacob Lofland and Michael Shannon also round-up this admirable ensemble of actors.
Mud ended up being one of my favorite films of the year for its immensely beautiful story and the performances. The characters and their conflicts portrayed in a smartly realized way without having the need to hammer on the masculinity and bleak troupes. Those aspects are highlighted but given more of a heart than what you will normally expect from similar films these days. Where Mud loses just a bit of its impact is probably the ending which isn't a big issues considering how much these characters have already registered with you. Not a disappointing end but a shakier attempt. Nichols should continue making the kind of films that he does not because he is best at it but that there isn't anybody quiet like him with his vision in American cinema. Mud is a great coming-of-age tale told with a keen eye, with humor and drama and honest emotions.